Understanding cultural etiquette is important when travelling abroad especially when you don’t speak the language. I was amazed how smoothly we navigated around Asia with just a map and occasional assistance from a friendly local. Probably the best thing we did to prepare for this trip is learn how to greet people in every country we visited. Aside from showing respect it certainly made them more apt to help us. The “Wai” is the customary greeting in Thailand and a way to convey respect and gratitude. It is done by joining the palms of the hands, with the index fingers gently touching the nose and mouth and followed by a slow bow of the head.
Outside the gates of the Grand Place we encountered a Thai man and his dog having a picnic on the front lawn. As we passed he raised his Chihuahua in the palm of his hand and without a moment’s hesitation the dog placed his paws together and bowed his little head. Overcome with joy watching the tiny pup perform the “Wai” I motioned to Paul and we returned the gesture. It was one of the cutest things I had ever seen! We approached and he raised the dog again so I could take a picture and then handed me the pup so I could return the gesture. As we headed towards the gates of Wat Pho we thanked him again and he wished us well with a cheerful “Welcome to Thailand!” This stinky city was really starting to grow on me.
While standing in line at the entrance to Wat Pho we spotted another couple from the cruise ship and decided to split a guide. He was a well weathered gentleman, missing several front teeth with a thick Thai accent and a jovial spirit. Our guide was not only conversant with the interworking’s of Wat Pho but skilled in people management. We were certainly not the easiest group to lead. From the moment we entered the gate, our fellow travelers were on a mission to hit the highlights at a record pace while Paul and I meandered though every inch, tangled in cameras and asking questions about every detail; however somehow he made it work.
As we approached the temple of the reclining Buddha the guide pulled us aside and handed us each a bag. Apparently Wat Pho was having issues with shoe thieves so we were advised to carry ours along. We carefully stepped over the large threshold and were immediately struck by the beautiful paintings which covered every inch of the ceiling and walls. According to our guide, repainting is a continuous task which takes about 40 years from beginning to end. Impressive! It is certainly an interesting place; the temple is small in comparison to the massive Buddha. Large square pillars support the center of the temple separating visitors from the amazing shrine and making it extremely difficult to photograph.
The visitors side is only about 10 feet wide and overrun with camera happy tourists jockeying for a position to capture that “perfect photo”. The Buddha is situated on his side with his right arm supporting his head depicting his last mortal position before passing into nirvana. It was not until we rounded the feet that we finally got a full view of the Buddha. We stood by his enormous toes staring up at the amazing idle. We were captivated by a feeling of serenity and awe struck by his beauty all be it for a brief moment until flailing arms and flashing cameras pushed out from behind.
As we emerged from the temple we notice several people laying mats and assembling a rope grid overhead. According to our guide this was for the New Years Eve ceremony. From 9pm until 1am monks fill the temple grounds to pray for peace and good fortune. The rope grid absorbs the positive energy and the following morning pieces of the rope are given to the people of Bangkok ensuring the recipients a prosperous 2014 as well.
Physically exhausted and suffering from sensory overload I was ready to call it a day, but as we reached the docks and prepared to head to the hotel Paul pointed to a striking tower on the alternate shore. As I looked across the river I saw the prominent central prang of Wat Arun, one of the most iconic structures in Bangkok. It was then I realized Paul was planning one more stop. From the east side of the Chao Phraya River Wat Arun looked small and awfully inconvenient. I must admit it took some convincing to get me on a river taxi heading in the opposite direction of the Hilton, but I finally conceded under the condition that we kept it short and made it to the concierge lounge by 6:30pm.
The magnitude of Wat Arun became much grander as we reached the base. It wasn’t glitzy, no mirrored tiles or gilded arches like Wat Pho and The Grand Palace, but stunning nonetheless. No, Wat Arun is a beautiful mosaic mess, bedazzled with shards of Chinese porcelain and seashells artfully configured into cheery flowers and mischievous creatures. The large 70 meter central prang is flanked by four smaller prangs each held up by obscure monkeys and tired-looking demons. A climb up the cement stairs of the central prang provides passage to two terraces and picturesque views of the east side. Also known as the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun was named for the Hindu god Aruna who governs the early morning. According to the guides the temple is most beautiful at sunrise as the rays reflect off the central prang like a shining cut diamond, ushering in the new day. We found it to be equally beautiful in the light of the late afternoon sun.
For thrill seekers like Paul, a climb to the top, up those insanely steep stairs, yielded spectacular views of Bangkok and a great opportunity to see the diversity of this city – the river and ancient Bangkok with the modern metropolis in the backdrop. For me, a look from the first platform was certainly sufficient. I had actually reconsidered my decision to climb a few steps in but was unable to descend as the path was narrow and congested with people moving steadily in both directions.
As Paul explored the top terrace I waited patiently on the first. This picture fails to capture the peril we encountered. It was like climbing a concrete ladder; the steps were narrow, probably 6 inches deep and the rise was severe, nearly a foot and a half! Following Paul’s lead I grabbed the underside of the hand rail with the palm of my hand and braced my forearm firmly against the metal. According to Paul this underarm hold would keep us from tumbling should one of us misstep during the decent. A reasonable theory, but I still insisted he went down first.
The next morning we decided to take Lily’s advice and head across the street for a bit of pampering. When we entered the spa we were greeted by three giggly women who spoke no English and presented with a list of services written entirely in Thai. Paul took the flyer and we stepped aside to review our options. After determining Thai shows no resemblance to English and that we had no hope of deciphering the hieroglyphics, we returned to the counter for an impromptu game of charades with Paul rubbing his neck and me pointing at Paul and nodding enthusiastically. Eventually the ladies caught on and handed us an English flyer so we could make our selections.
As we sat sipping our tea and awaiting the masseuses I couldn’t help wondering if the ladies at the counter assumed we spoke Thai or just got a kick out of watching American tourists awkwardly perform for service. We were, after all directly across the street from the Hilton and within two blocks of three other American hotels. Unlike American massage, Thai massage is performed fully clothed with no scented oils or lotions and instead of being kneaded and rubbed you are stretched, and pulled in yoga like positions. Although I am pretty sure we requested traditional Thai massages what we got were Thai foot, hand and shoulder reflexology. All in all it was a pretty good experience and one of the most economical things we did in Thailand. Total cost for two one hour massages was just $24USD. We left feeling rejuvenated and ready for lunch.
Food was certainly a large part of our Hong Kong and Vietnam experience, but sadly we ate only one authentic Thai meal during our 24 hour stay in Bangkok. On the 31st we were so wrapped up in touring the temples that we skipped lunch completely and when we returned to the Hilton that evening we were so tired we didn’t make it past cocktail hour.
The breakfast buffet was as enticing as cocktail hour and we headed out that morning too full to eat again until lunchtime. Lunch was good but certainly not exciting enough to document (I don’t think I even got a picture); curried fish and a side order of tempura vegetables, although I did really enjoy the dessert. Not sure what it was called but it tasted like a slightly firmer version of coconut jell-o mixed with bits of ice. There are so many things to do in Bangkok; guess we’ll just have to make another trip!